Last week’s Question Time shocked many Remain-voting commentators. The fact the Derby audience cheered suggestions Britain might leave the EU without a deal came as a complete surprise to them. The emotion and anger audible in that cheering has clearly made them think – and provoked a number of soul-searching columns. Many commentators previously convinced themselves both that the Leave electorate regrets their vote and that all the anger lies on the side of Remain activists and voters. Derby suggested that, at the very least, provincial English voters are capable of revolt. And let’s be honest, the sight of working class anger is frightening to middle class, Remain-voting commentators.
It’s easy to sneer at these commentators for being out of touch with provincial England. Of course, many of them are; but on this occasion, their shock needs to be placed in context. For the anger displayed in Derby genuinely is a recent phenomenon; it wasn’t visible even a few months ago because it wasn’t there. This anger is a 2019 development – but it might well become the defining feature of this year. Where do Leave voters currently stand?
Until the new year, what we had amongst Leave voters was an exasperation that Brexit was taking so long, with confusion as to why we couldn’t “just get on with it”. But anger was kept at bay for three reasons: firstly, and most importantly, because the Prime Minister and the Cabinet have kept assuring voters that Britain is leaving; secondly, because the Prime Minister was credited with “fighting for Britain” during the various difficult negotiations with the EU and leading Member States (the worse she was treated the better she did with these voters); and thirdly, because Remain activists seemed so upset that it suggested the Government must indeed be leading us out.
But the background context has changed. Since the start of January, the Leave-voting public has watched politicians apparently devise obscure and clever new tactics to thwart Brexit. The fact that many justify their actions in the name of preventing a No Deal Brexit, as opposed to Brexit generally, is lost on people. To Leave voters, the politicians they have come to detest over the last two decades are engaging in an act of betrayal. And it is this sense of betrayal that is fuelling the beginnings of the anger that we witnessed last week in Derby.
Most Leave voters backed Brexit because of practical concerns about immigration: about the difficulty of buying a house, securing timely access to healthcare, and finding work. Whether this was reasonable or not is beside the point; that’s what they felt. Forget what you read in the FT: most Leave voters were emphatically not part of a revolt against the political class, nor against the failures of capitalism. In this way, they weren’t like many Trump voters and they weren’t part of a populist uprising. But the actions of politicians over the last few weeks is changing them; there are signs that they are going to turn into the sort of voters that Remain-voting commentators originally but wrongly said they were: angry, disillusioned, and capable of self-consciously punishing the political class. In short, they’re now on the trajectory towards Trump voter status.
There is a clear risk that working class Leave voters are going to become, primarily, anti-politics voters (or non-voters) – that they’re going to basically shift to sticking two fingers up to all the parties. We have seen flashes of this over the last two decades: in the Hartlepool Mayoral Election; in the North East referendum; in the AV referendum; and so on. But, to date, it has largely been restrained; after all, working class and lower middle class voters flocked to the most establishment politician of recent times: David Cameron (who people still talk about with some respect).
What does this mean for the Conservative Party? To date, because of the actions of the Prime Minister and most senior party politicians, Leave voters are giving the party the benefit of the doubt; they will flock to the party at the next election if something like the campaigning status quo remains in place. But if these voters learn, actually, that most of its politicians are thwarting the only path available to actually leaving, then Conservative competitive advantage will disappear and these Leave voters will truly become anti-politics voters that finally reject all politicians of all parties. At that point they might lend their votes occasionally to the party but the process will be harder.
Clearly, danger lies in both directions: worried Remain voters may punish politicians, and their votes matter, too. But, as I’ve written before, Leave voters’ anger over the prospect of not leaving should always be feared more because their anger will be driven by a sense of betrayal – over politicians having actively taken steps to stop something happening that they previously said they would respect. Some have speculated that civil unrest or a growth in extremism would result; in truth, we don’t know that; but it seems reasonable to assume that a very large chunk of the electorate would be essentially unpredictable at the ballot box and that they could no longer be addressed in the same way.